Kevin Madden knew he was going to win a seat on the Delaware County Council during a campaign-trail stop straight out of the election playbook.
“I was at a train station, talking to commuters,” Madden said recently, “and a woman looked both ways to make sure no one was around, leaned in and whispered, ‘I’m a Republican, but you have my vote.'”
At the time, the clandestine confession amused the tech entrepreneur, one of two Democrats to be elected to the county’s executive board for the first time in four decades. But in the seven months since he and Brian Zidek clinched those seats, they say, they’ve realized the seriousness of their feat.
And their three colleagues on the other side of the aisle, a few heated meetings notwithstanding, so far seem to welcome having another party to contend with.
“I ran to be a threat to the status quo, and I expected a degree of concern from those who’ve profited from the status quo,” said Zidek, a medical reinsurance executive. “People elected me and Kevin because they know we ran for the right reasons.”
Victory in November seemed improbable at the outset. They were two wealthy businessmen throwing their hats into a county whose ruling party has long been propped up by organized labor and patronage jobs. Against that backdrop, they scored a tight victory against an incumbent who’s spent decades as a union steamfitter and his running mate, a retired district judge.
“On the campaign trail, I said, if you don’t like what’s happening in D.C., clean up your backyard,” said Zidek, who said he, like Madden, took an interest in local politics after President Trump’s election. “The concerns that we ran on are about good governance, not electing the next Supreme Court justice. It’s not a universally Democratic or Republican issue.”
But for those paying close attention, Madden and Zidek’s success shouldn’t have been too surprising. Twenty years ago, Republican voters had a 2-1 ratio in the county. Now, Democrats lead by about 21,000 votes, buoyed, party officials say, by a surge of expats arriving from Philadelphia.
“If you only have one party, questions about best practices just don’t get asked,” David Landau, the chairman emeritus of the county Democratic Party, said. “People want to know what their government does, and they don’t know. Now that you have another viewpoint out there, at least people are asking these questions.”
Longtime county watchdogs say council meetings – held at 10 a.m. every other Wednesday – used to be lightly attended and quick to end, with nary a “no” vote. Now, the meetings stretch sometimes upward of an hour, with discussion and debate common.
But Council Chairman John McBlain doesn’t see that as a sign of dissension or divisiveness. He said he welcomes the new perspective.
“I hope that one of the surprises they found was that they were told one thing and found something different about way the county is run,” McBlain said. “That’s the talking points that they were assigned – I guess the Democrats felt it was needed to win an election.
“Except for a handful of appointments of a partisan nature, and the back and forth on the study of the pipeline, all of the votes on practical purpose have been unanimous,” he added. “And I think that’s a credit to both parties.”
One of the flare-ups McBlain alluded to came up at the council meeting two weeks ago: a risk-analysis study of Sunoco’s Mariner East II pipeline that Zidek and Madden have been pushing for since February. The proposal has been deadlocked at 2-2 for months, partially because McBlain, a Republican, has abstained ever since Zidek publicly raised concerns about the business his law firm has done for the utility giant.
“I think above and beyond anything else, they’re here to do a job for county residents,” Colleen Morrone, the council’s vice chair, said of Zidek and Madden. “I think we’re getting the same work done now that we got before the election. To me, when you get in there, it shouldn’t be about a political party. It’s about what you’re supposed to be doing.”
Michael Culp, the third Republican rounding out the council, took a similar stance to Morrone in regard to his new colleagues.
“They have brought new ideas and suggestions to council, some of which I have agreed with and some I have not,” Culp said. “While we have had disagreements on issues, we still have been able to work together; disagreements on council are not new a new thing, and are not necessarily partisan in nature.”
Still, accusations of the parties’ role in the council’s business remain.
In February, the two Democrats fumed when their Republican counterparts threw them a curve ball, voting Joseph Possenti to the county board of elections. Delaware County’s home rule charter stipulates that the seats go to the party with the highest vote total in the most recent county council election. Zidek accused the GOP of playing “partisan games,” given that Possenti became a Democrat just 10 years ago.
“We might have a particularly contentious meeting, but the reality is that we’re building muscles as a governing body that haven’t been used before,” Madden said. “Just because we disagree doesn’t mean we cant work together. Realistically, at the end of the day, we’re just two votes, and we have to work together at making change.”
That public back-and-forth, along with every other meeting-bound discussion since February, reached a wider audience. One of the Democrats’ first suggestions was to have all of the council’s meetings recorded and uploaded to the county website, along with the agendas of each meeting, for posterity.
“It’s not so much those measures will change things overnight, but they’re emblematic of a system that didn’t employ commonsense best practices,” Madden said. “We ran on the idea that single party rule prevents transparency, and this is a time to make structural changes.”
Andy Reilly, the head of the GOP in Delaware County and the council’s former chairman, bristled at the notion that his party’s dominance bred corruption.
“Most Republicans knew that that was all a myth, or, I hesitate to say, fake news,” Reilly said. “This theory that they campaigned on, that, ‘Hey, it’s a one-party rule and we need diversity.’ Well, there is diversity: diversity of thought and diversity of ideas. Just because we’re all Republican doesn’t mean we fall in lockstep.”
Reilly, who took potshots at Madden on the campaign trail as a venture capitalist with no record of community service, says he sees the two as “genuine people” and hasn’t heard many complaints from the Republicans on the council about their presence.
“They’ll say that they’re making a difference, and they probably are making a difference, but they don’t need to be creating stark contrasts that don’t exist to justify their presence,” Reilly said. “They won the popular vote, they deserve to sit there and be elected and decide what they think is best for all people.”
Zidek said he and Madden are committed to making lasting change, for as long as they hold their unprecedented positions.
“We think our best reelection campaign is doing a good job,” he said. “If we show we’re protecting tax dollars without supporting our own interests, I hope that’s a solid message for reelection.
“And if not, that’s what we’ll do anyway.”